Digging In: a response to (responses to) Dana Dusbiber

Those who know me know that I’m all about taking Shakespeare down a peg. But California high school teacher Dana Dusbiber’s now-viral dismissal of Shakespeare really made me think–or, more specifically, the responses to her made me think. Published by Valerie Strauss on her Washington Post education blog, Dusbiber’s article argues that Shakespeare does not serve the educational needs of her students, whom she describes as ‘very ethnically-diverse’. Following a rather weak opening in which she confesses that she simply doesn’t like Shakespeare herself, Dusbiber goes on to raise a few very legitimate concerns:

I do not believe that a long-dead, British guy is the only writer who can teach my students about the human condition. […]

I am sad that so many of my colleagues teach a canon that some white people decided upon so long ago and do it without question. I am sad that we don’t believe enough in ourselves as professionals to challenge the way that it has “always been done.” […]

So I ask, why not teach the oral tradition out of Africa, which includes an equally relevant commentary on human behavior? Why not teach translations of early writings or oral storytelling from Latin America or Southeast Asia other parts of the world? Many, many of our students come from these languages and traditions. Why do our students not deserve to study these “other” literatures with equal time and value? And if time is the issue in our classrooms, perhaps we no longer have the time to study the Western canon that so many of us know and hold dear.”

I’ve been disappointed to find that most of the counter-attacks from the Shakespeare scholarly and theatrical communities have taken one of two approaches: they appeal to an outdated argument regarding Shakespeare’s unique grasp of the human condition, or they suggest that Dusbiber has never been exposed to “proper” Shakespeare.

If we’re going to argue for keeping Shakespeare on a national curriculum, the first approach clearly will not change Dusbiber’s mind or the mind of anyone who agrees with her. She says right in the article that she doesn’t buy Shakespeare’s supposed “universal” applicability–and to be frank, neither do I. Reminding us that Shakespeare wrote about people of colour and women will not erase the fact that he was, after all, a white dude from a relatively privileged background who wrote for actors from a very similar demographic. I don’t think we can still get away with arguing that Shakespeare uniquely speaks to some kind of essential humanity that transcends race, gender, and social class (not to mention geography and chronological time). Reminding us that everyone can relate to themes like love and loss will not change the fact that other writers (as Dusbiber points out) are equally capable of engaging with them. This essentialist approach isn’t going to help Shakespeare’s case, no matter how ardently you believe in his universal applicability.

The second approach follows a similar logic, in that it implies loving Shakespeare is the default setting of humanity, and so the problem is not with Shakespeare but with ineffective pedagogy. It comes in many forms, perhaps the most popular being the argument that Shakespeare isn’t properly taught as literature at all–that he needs to be staged or at least analysed from a perspective of performance in order to be really appreciated. While I happen to agree that teaching Shakespeare exclusively at desks is ineffective, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone who doesn’t like Shakespeare must not have been exposed to the more theatrical way of learning his plays. Some people will never connect with Shakespeare because–despite centuries of protestations–his plays aren’t actually universally applicable (cf. Artaud). No one’s are. There’s no such thing. Yes, the plays are wonderfully varied and quotable, but there’s only 37 of them for goodness’ sake. Lots of people will find it easier to understand and appreciate Shakespeare when they’re taught the plays from a performative point of view, but that doesn’t mean the ones who don’t walk away adoring the Bard are somehow defective humans.

Of course, the proponents of these defences of Shakespeare have no intention of insulting the very humanity of those who don’t appreciate him–they simply want to share the joy that they’ve found through engagement with Shakespeare. And it’s entirely understandable that Dusbiber’s article would provoke that kind of response: she repeatedly tells us that she feels no personal connection to Shakespeare, despite being a ‘voracious reader’. But both these kinds of responses conveniently avoid the central question buried beneath Dusbiber’s muddy appeals to personal taste: What is the place of Shakespeare–and indeed of the traditional Western literary canon–in an increasingly expanded curriculum?

If we’re going to argue for Shakespeare’s place in the classroom, we’ve got to come at it from a place of historical contingency. Shakespeare was once just a white dude from England who wrote some plays, but in the 400 years since his death he has come to signify much more than the cultural circumstances within which he lived. Shakespeare is now not only part of the Western literary canon, but he has been adapted and adopted by people all over the world–often in ways that speak back to the conservatism of the traditional canon and to the imperialism that brought them the canon in the first place. An obvious example is Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, which uses characters and situations from The Tempest in order to engage with issues of power, race, and imperialism. As Sonia Massai and Preti Taneja pointed out in a recent BBC Radio broadcast on Global Shakespeares, his plays were part of a British imperial agenda, and they have now become part of a worldwide conversation across literary and performance genres. They’re no longer limited to England, or even to the English language. That distinction between Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the cultural icon is one of the arguments we can make for the continuing relevance of Shakespeare in the classroom. It’s not that Shakespeare is somehow better at speaking to us about the human condition, but rather that he’s now so entrenched not just in Western literature but really in global literature. I certainly wouldn’t say that the plays are universally relevant, but it’s also hard to argue that they are completely irrelevant. Opening up the curriculum to include creative responses to Shakespeare allows a teacher to demonstrate the ways in which issues relevant to Shakespeare might also be relevant to us, while still questioning the canon and empowering students to critique and speak back to Shakespeare’s authority.

In addition, I would argue that teaching Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s sake is much different from teaching a unit, module, or entire course of English or European Renaissance literature. Lots of responses to Dusbiber have critiqued her by saying that Shakespeare’s plays range all over the world, and therefore should be applicable to everyone. His scope seems rather narrow, however, compared with other playwrights of the period. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, for example, ranges all over the Middle East and offers obvious departure points for discussions about racial and religious differences, xenophobia, imperialism, torture, and other issues that are still highly relevant today. So, too, does Fletcher’s The Island Princess, set in the “spice islands”, or modern-day Indonesia. The Island Princess also lends itself to discussions about globalisation and international trade. The subplot of Jonson’s Epicoene allows for conversations about globalisation, too, and its main plot offers plenty of space for discussions about sex and gender identities–as, indeed, most of the comedies from this period do. I could go on.

I realise, at this point, that I might be accused of making exactly the same argument that I refuted above: that the plays of the English Renaissance have some kind of universal relevance. That’s not at all my point in bringing up the various relevances of non-Shakespearean Renaissance plays. Rather, I want to demonstrate two things. First, Shakespeare’s plays are not unique in their ability to speak to contemporary issues. Secondly, and therefore, if we’re going to argue that English Renaissance literature is important, we can no longer limit ourselves to Shakespeare. I could envision an exciting and dynamic set of lessons covering global literature from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which uses English Renaissance drama as a point of departure for a much broader conversation. I could also picture a much less chronological syllabus that pairs a work of English literature with an adaptation or a piece covering similar themes from any period in history, and anywhere in the world. As an example from outside the Renaissance, I remember reading Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea immediately after Jane Eyre in my first year of undergrad and feeling like my entire world had been exploded–in the best possible way.

None of us will be able to convince Dusbiber that she’s wrong about Shakespeare, and Dusbiber probably won’t convince the Shakespeareans and early modernists of the world that we’re wrong about him, either. But if we’re going to argue for the place of Shakespeare and English Renaissance drama (or indeed, English literature more generally) in an expanding canon, then we need to stop countering calls for change by digging in our heels and start looking at how to adapt.

My Problem with the Wanamaker (maybe)

I’m writing a lot lately about the complex relationships between Shakespeare and his contemporaries (a phrase I hate, actually…they could just as easily be Middleton’s or Jonson’s contemporaries, surely?). One of the problems that has come up again and again is the message implicit in major companies’ policy on producing Jonson’s or Middleton’s or Marlowe’s plays: particularly in companies that include ‘Shakespeare’ in their name, any early modern play not written by Shakespeare is considered a commercial risk. The Bard sells the tickets. Consider the RSC’s stance on the issue: Coen Heijes notes in his chapter for Performing Early Modern Drama Today that ‘Performing Shakespeare’s contemporaries was something of an unaffordable luxury for the RSC as long as it had only one theater to operate in Stratford’, whilst ‘The Swan opened up the possibility of finally exploring Shakespeare’s contemporaries in a more consistent manner’ (71, 73). According to Michael Boyd, the twenty-first century Swan provides ‘an opportunity for something to prove itself […] and grow much more effortlessly to have a life in the main house’ (qtd. in Heijes 84). The RSC sees Shakespeare’s plays, then, as being pre-screened: there is no need for a production of Hamlet to ‘prove itself’ before being allowed into the main space.

Never mind that this binary has been completely shattered by the success of  Doctor Faustus at the Globe in 2011 and The Changeling at the Young Vic in 2012 and…I could go on and on.

The problem has extended more recently to the Globe’s new indoor playing space, due to open in January 2014. Although many of Shakespeare’s late plays would have been produced in the Blackfriars, an indoor playhouse similar to the one the Globe is currently constructing, this new theatre has not been advertised as belonging to Shakespeare. Instead, it is either the ‘indoor Jacobean playhouse’ or, more officially, ‘The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’, after the current Globe’s late founder and benefactor. While it could easily have been ‘Shakespeare’s Blackfriars’ or ‘Shakespeare’s Indoor Playhouse’, in line with the name of the parent company and the main playing space, the marketing for this new theatre has been deliberately non-Shakespearean. The inaugural season of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will include The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and The Malcontent, handily balancing a more popular non-Shakespearean early modern tragedy against two lesser-known plays, along with an Italian baroque opera and several concerts. Dominic Dromgoole’s statement on the inaugural season is diplomatic, suggesting that ‘in time, we will perform the plays of Shakespeare in there’, but expressing his delight at ‘opening this theatre with three such shining jewels’ of non-Shakespearean early modern drama.  On the surface, this seems like a positive step towards inclusion of a wider variety of plays and playwrights within the current early modern performance canon. Consider, however, the implicit coding: the Wanamaker is a smaller, and more expensive, theatre space, comprising 350 seats with prices starting at £10 and running up to £75; in contrast, the Globe offers 700 £5-tickets at each performance and caps prices at £39. This alone results in greater accessibility for plays produced in Shakespeare’s Globe as compared to the Wanamaker. While former artistic director Mark Rylance opened Shakespeare’s Globe with a season containing plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in equal measure, the only non-Shakespearean early modern play on that stage during Dromgoole’s term so far was Doctor Faustus in 2011. The first season at the Wanamaker could therefore be read as a segregative message: the Globe is for Shakespeare, but the Wanamaker is for other playwrights; and furthermore, Shakespeare should be accessible to everyone, but his contemporaries need not be.

Future seasons at both Shakespeare’s Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse will be telling in this respect. I’m the first to acknowledge that more productions of early modern plays that were not written by Shakespeare is an amazing thing–but I do think that the way they’re produced and where they’re produced can be as important as the mere fact of their production.

Heijes, Coen. ‘Shakespeare’s contemporaries at the Royal Shakespeare Company’. Performing Early Modern Drama Today. Ed. Pascale Aebischer and Kathryn Prince. Cambridge: CUP, 2012. Print. pp. 70-84.

‘The Duchess of Malfi to open Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’. BBC News: Entertainment and Arts. 22 April 2013. Web. 15 May 2013.

Research Musings: I thought I’d said ‘no’ to this, but…

How is it–after completing an MA in Staging Shakespeare and vowing up and down that my doctoral thesis would be about something other than this ridiculous monolith we call the Bard–how is it that I’ve ended up writing and reading about Shakespeare basically all the time? He’s inescapable. Even the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton talks an awful lot about Shakespeare.

Since he seems to be following me–or, more accurately, since he takes ‘ubiquitous’ to a whole new level–I have come to begrudgingly accept that I can’t run away from him. It might be impossible; it’s certainly very difficult, and I am just a lowly doctoral candidate without enough real clout to declare to anyone besides my anonymous blog audience that Shakespeare is, objectively speaking, no better at playwriting than his contemporaries. Besides, that terrible, constructed dichotomy of ‘Shakespeare’ and then ‘everyone else’ really gets on my nerves (which is totally an academic turn of phrase). As I pointed out in a recent post here, it makes very little sense to me to go around comparing Shakespeare’s plays to, say, Middleton’s in search of a value judgement on either of their works. That would be like taking Shaw’s Pygmalion and Ibsen’s Ghosts and trying to decide which was the ‘better’ play. Ibsen and Shaw wrote different kinds of plays. Is it useful to compare and contrast them without making an (implicit or explicit) value judgement or pitting their works against each other in some kind of ridiculous battle for supremacy? Absolutely! But why does everyone insist on reminding their readers that the constructed idea of “Shakespeare” would cringe at some of the scenes in The Changeling? Please keep in mind that we’re talking about the man who wrote King John.

(Thinking about it in retrospect, I sort of take that back…it would be better to say that comparing Shakespeare and Middleton is like comparing Shaw to Shaw’s slightly-less-well-known contemporary who was notwithstanding a very good playwright. But I think you can see what I mean. Hopefully.)

I’m starting to think, however, that there might be interesting research to be done around what happens to the relationship between Shakespeare and Middleton over time. It’s probably not a topic unto itself (not yet, anyway, I’m still developing the idea), but it might be worth at least a chapter. How and why did Middleton return to vogue? Why was 2007 the year in which the first Middleton Collected Works was published? What does the 20th-century theatre see in Middleton that the 19th-century theatre didn’t (despite his strong–if Bard-qualified–presence in academia)?

 

Research Musings: Cultural Capital

I’ve been thinking a lot in the past couple of days about Middleton and Rowley’s relationship to Shakespeare. I am now convinced that it is literally impossible to research a play by any early modern playwright besides Shakespeare without also researching Shakespeare. This is frustrating, especially because I deliberately chose not to propose a Shakespeare topic for my PhD.

Take, for example, a book I skimmed through today: Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe by Pauline Kiernan. It reads like a sort of retrospective look at the new Globe’s first seasons, especially in the final section, which is comprised of statements from actors and directors who worked on the first shows to be produced there. The opening season in 1997 was made up of four plays: Henry V, The Winter’s Tale, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and The Maid’s Tragedy. That’s right folks: two by Shakespeare, one by Middleton, and one by Beaumont and Fletcher. Let’s take a moment to digest that information: the opening season at Shakespeare’s Globe was half Shakespeare and half Shakespeare’s contemporaries. One would never know this, however, from reading the aptly-titled Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe. 

In the aforementioned final section of the book, there are something like twenty or thirty interviews. By my count, only six or seven mention A Chaste Maid in Cheapside at all, despite the fact that most of the interviewees acted in that play. Of those six or seven, only two actually say something significant about the play or the production. I think it’s telling that the director of Chaste Maid notes in his statement that ‘Richard III would be terrific here’.

I’ve been advised that it is, indeed, academic suicide to not address the issue of Shakespeare’s ‘cultural capital’ in my dissertation, at least in the introduction. I know that I have to do it, but I hate that I have to do it. My supervisor, Kate, shared an anecdote with me from her university years when I expressed my frustration that I couldn’t find anything on Middleton that didn’t compare him to Shakespeare: she said that, in a gender studies lecture, her tutor explained how to identify a discriminatory statement. She claimed that if you could reverse a statement without it sounding ridiculous then it was not discriminatory; if not, then the original statement was probably objectively ridiculous, despite being normalised by society. So let’s consider the statement–which crops up in a lot of Middleton biographies and critical studies–that Middleton, in his best work, “approaches” or “comes near to” the genius of Shakespeare.

Turned around, that reads:

Shakespeare, in his best work, approaches the genius of Middleton

or

Shakespeare, at his best, comes near to the genius of Middleton.

No sane scholar would ever use that inverted version. Why? Because Shakespeare has been created as a cultural pillar, a benchmark by which all other playwrights are measured. It’s next to sacrilege to even suggest that Shakespeare would have to measured against the “genius” of another playwright.

So what if, rather than attempting to turn the tables, I try to leave Shakespeare out of the equation–at least the version of Shakespeare that has become a ubiquitous cultural icon. It may not be possible, for example, to leave out a discussion of the allusions in The Changeling to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But what are the theoretical implications of treating Shakespeare like everyone else? What, if any, are the potential problems of treating him as just another playwright?

Seriously.

It’s time to end this marriage equality nonsense in America. How about that Declaration of Independence, US? “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain, unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That pretty much says it all for me. Whether you personally/religiously/morally agree with it or not, it’s time to recognize that a person’s right to marry another person is not something that can or should be legislated. Looking back, do we think it was just or right to prevent slaves from marrying? Or to outlaw interracial marriages? I guarantee you that in a hundred years, the world will look back at these debates and think, “What?! Our ancestors were barbarians!”

This post was inspired by the following two links, one disturbing, one awesome (See if you can guess which is which!) :

http://www.dumpstarbucks.com

http://sumofus.org/campaigns/thank-starbucks/?sub=taf

Starbucks’s official statement can be viewed here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/25/starbucks-same-sex-marriage-washington-_n_1231047.html

“I am not a slut…

…though I thank the god(des)s I am foul.” ~As You Like It

I’m not a hardcore feminist by any means, but I still don’t think it’s okay to call someone a slut, especially when you don’t know her personally and especially when you’re being broadcast for an awful lot of people to hear. I would apply this stance to other derogatory terms (for both sexes). I would further apply this stance to anyone, anywhere, no matter what his or her politics. That’s a long way of saying that there was certainly a better way for Mr. Limbaugh to voice his objections–but he is by no means the only one who uses this kind of language.

Just to dispel a few myths I’ve seen floating around FB:

*The Pill is NOT available over the counter (at least not in the US, Canada, or the UK!). The Plan B or ‘morning after’ pill IS, but this is explicitly not meant to be used on a regular basis.

*There are lots and lots of reasons that women take the Pill. Most of these have nothing to do with sexual activity.

*A Catholic doctor / hospital / institution can prescribe birth control in good moral conscience if it is being prescribed to treat a medical condition (ie, debilitating cramps) rather than for contraceptive purposes. I do not know if this applies equally to other sects of Christianity or other religions that oppose the use of birth control.

Let’s all think before we speak.

Priorities

In the run up to the 2012 US presidential election, there has been loads of controversy cropping up regarding various politicians’ positions on various issues. The most recent and perhaps the most far-reaching example is last week’s birth control/insurance hearing at which no female witnesses were called to testify.

In a world where economies are crashing, regimes are collapsing, and wars are raging, some in America have expressed the feeling that the US president (whoever he or she may be in January 2013) should be chosen based solely on those ‘bigger issues’. They argue that it’s entirely justifiable to vote for a candidate who doesn’t match their own views on, say, birth control and insurance policies if said candidate ticks all their boxes on the (perceived) bigger issues of domestic (read: economic) and foreign policy.

I’m not by any means arguing that a presidential candidate should not have a solid plan for the economy and America’s place in the world–both are hugely important issues. But I’d like to ask this question: when do the ‘little things’ become important? When does birth control or school curricula or the environment matter enough to be something that we choose a president by? In any global scenario I can imagine, there will be war and poverty and turmoil; those things never go away. Looking at ancient art tells us that those things have been around at least since humanity was capable of making cave drawings. So if the big things will always be issues, at what point do we decide to care about the other stuff? And how do we prioritize the other stuff once we start thinking about it?